It’s 9.30am in Silkeborg. The air is crisp and Hjejlen, the worlds’ oldest working paddle steamer, is cranking into action. Smoke bunches from her chunky funnel. Passengers boarding from the cobblestoned riverbank include couples holding hands, families bearing boxes stocked with sandwiches and biscuits, old pals with flasks of tea, and tourists with cameras.
Below deck, Marc Andersen and Sven Petersen keep the coal furnace purring. I’ve climbed down a short ladder to join them in Hjejlen’s engine room, a cramped space dominated by thumping pistons. “It works just like it did 152 years ago,” Anderson tells me, describing the cause-and-effect choreography by which the coal generates the steam, the steam drives the pistons, the pistons turn the paddles and the paddles propel the boat.
“It passes down through the generations,” he smiles, wiping his hands in a rag.
A whistle blows. A horn sounds. Hjejlen heaves out onto the river. As she gets up to speed, steaming under railway bridges, the symphony of chugs and whirrs and splashes gets more hypnotic. All of Denmark seems to be playing on the Silkeborg Lakes — kayaking, sailing yachts, fishing from the shore. When we pass a private jetty, a woman raises an iPad to record the moment. On board, two men crack open bottles of beer. When the pace is set, one of the engineers surfaces to gobble a bread roll.
Things are beginning to click. A couple of days driving around the Danish Lake District — a sweet little pocket of waterways, forests and undulating hills on the Jutland Peninsula — has given me a sense of why locals love it so much. You won’t find jaw-dropping fjords or hulking mountains here (Denmark’s highest point, Ejer Bavnehøj, is ‘a smidge under 171 metres, bless its cotton socks,’ as Lonely Planet puts it). What you will find is a pretty trickle of small moments, seductive landscapes and heritage treats. And lots of surprises.
Moments after disembarking from the Hjejlen, I’m staring death in the face. Death doesn’t look back. His eyes are closed, his lips sealed, his body tucked up.
Tollund Man was discovered in 1950. Two brothers chanced on the bog body while cutting peat and, thinking they’d uncovered a murder, called the police. The police in turn called a museum. Everyone was correct, in a manner of speaking: Tollund Man had indeed been murdered. It’s just that his ritual sacrifice had taken place some 2,350 years ago.
The bog has turned him brown, but he’s astonishingly well-preserved. In a dimly lit room in Silkeborg Museum, I can see the stubble on his chin, the grooves in his lips, ‘the mild pods of his eyelids,’ as Irish poet Seamus Heaney described them. ‘In the flat country nearby/Where they dug him out,/His last gruel of winter seeds/Caked in his stomach.’ The only clue as to Tollund Man’s grisly end is the tiny noose around his neck.
“Look at his face,” says the receptionist. “It could be anyone walking outside.” Like many Danes, he comes over a little frosty at first (the receptionist, that is — not Tollund Man, who might as well be dreaming of a day in Tivoli Gardens). Once we get chatting, however, the warmth comes through. That’s just how people are here.
Later on, I share a table at Gl Skovridergaard, a sweetly run three-star hotel in Silkeborg. Our group includes the manager, just back from an afternoon’s mushroom-picking, and we get chatting about the concept of hygge (pronounced ‘hooga’). There’s no direct translation, but loosely it means ‘cosiness’ — the feelings experienced at homely get-togethers, around winter fires or while relaxing with friends and family. It’s the perfect tonic for a cold winter day or an active day on the lakes, and Danes absolutely love it.
“Denmark is a very hyggelich country,” says one of my dining companions.
“Candlelight is very important to hygge,’ adds another, gesturing towards the flickering flame on our table. “It draws you in. You don’t see the lines in your face.”
The concept returns to mind at Fårup Lake. Pulling up at the shore a few miles from Vejle, I find a replica Viking longship floating on a glass-calm surface. It’s early, the grass is bejewelled with dew, and campers have yet to stir. I watch a couple of hikers arrive, lace their boots and set off on a squelchy trail circumnavigating the lake. I get the sense they’re here as much for the cosy hearth, cafe or kitchen waiting for them afterwards as the fresh air.
Fårup Lake lies in the Grejs Valley, a glacial trough undulating with hills, hollows and farmland. In many other countries, it would barely qualify as a puddle. But the more I look, the more I see. There are hidden orchids, kingfishers and otters. At a nearby trailhead, a waymarker contains an icon advising walkers to wear wellies. A tiny snail oozes across it.
There are plenty of discoveries in the towns and cities along the way, too. Moseying through Vejle itself, I stumble across Den Smidske Gård, a leafy courtyard ringed by an 18th-century merchant’s house. At Restaurant Remouladen Vejle, I wolf down traditional Danish smørrebrød (buttered bread), topped with squishy herring, baby potatoes and a clump of lamb’s lettuce.
At the heart of Royal town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, there are a pair of runic stones said to date from the 10th century. One is inscribed with the oldest known reference to Denmark (Danes refer to it as their country’s birth certificate). The other was erected by Harald Bluetooth, who ‘won all Denmark and Norway and Christianised the Danes’. A millennium or so later, his name was given to the wireless technology used by mobile phones and computers. The Bluetooth logo even combines the ‘H’ and ‘B’ from the runic alphabet.
Aarhus is the final stop on my Lake District tour. Denmark’s second city is the Bergen to Copenhagen’s Oslo — a boutique, waterside city, full of old buildings and cobbled streets (and, of course, perennially overshadowed by its capital). But its restaurants, cafes and all-round atmosphere make it a great base from which to explore East Jutland.
The Latin Quarter is its sweet spot, a patchwork of oak-framed houses and thin streets tracing the lines of old Viking ramparts and moats. It’s alive with artsy shops, earnest cafes, family homes and funky restaurants like OliNico Gastro Grillbar and Haute Friture. Stepping into the latter, I’m thrilled to bag a thick hunk of pork with roast baby potatoes and salad for 65KR (£7.20). “I roasted it at 120 degrees for about two and a half hours,” the enthusiastic young chef tells me. “It’s casual food that’s not going to make you fat. It’s nutritious, and it tastes good.”
He’s right. Aarhus has its New Nordic splash-outs, but a large student population can’t get enough of this casual gourmet fare (not to mention the nightlife along Åboulevarden). That’s a real selling point in a country where a Starbucks cappuccino can cost 50KR (£5.55).
Den Gamle By (‘The Old Town’) is Aarhus’s flagship attraction, a campus of old buildings uprooted from their original location and reassembled brick by brick. The result is a living museum, with costumed actors populating everything from a Hans Christian Anderson-era streetscape to the deliciously retro 1974 Quarter. My favourite store is Pouls Radio, where two men in tradesmen’s coats watch over a room full of CRT TVs, cassette tapes and hi-fi systems with huge buttons and dials. Outside, a dog sits in a truck wearing a bandana.
My weekend began with a ride on the world’s oldest paddle steamer. It ends with a futuristic view from the ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum, a modern art museum. Your Rainbow Panorama is an artwork by Olafur Eliasson; a 150-metre circular walkway on the museum’s roof. Its glass walls span the colour spectrum as they turn 360 degrees, making it seem like you’re viewing Aarhus through a sequential set of Instagram filters. It’s a strangely sensory skywalk. The blue makes me feel chilly, the magenta woozy. I squint when it’s yellow and feel warm when it’s orange.
It’s a panoramic parting shot; one last surprise for the road.
Tradition: When Denmark was liberated on 4 May 1945, lit candles were placed in windows throughout the country. A tradition was born and, although not as popular today, it remains wonderfully evocative of the Danes’ passion for hygge.
Did you know: Legoland Billund is one of Denmark’s most famous and popular family attractions. Around 60 million Lego bricks were used to build its models.
Ryanair flies daily from Stansted to Billund, and four times weekly from Stansted to Aarhus. Norwegian flies three times weekly to Aalborg. DFDS Seaways offers a year-round ferry service from Harwich to Esbjerg (about an hour from Vejle), departing at 5.45pm and arriving at 1pm the following day. ryanair.com norwegian.com dfdsseaways.co.uk
Average flight time: 1h30m.
Danish public transport is reliable, but the best way to tour the Lake District is by car. Rental companies are available at Billund, Aarhus and Aalborg airports, driving distances are short, and you can trade your vehicle for bikes or boats at the lakes.
When to go
Summer, although September has vibrant autumnal colours and fewer visitors.
Need to know
Currency: Danish Krone (DKK). £1 = 8.98DKK
International dial code: 00 45.
Time difference: GMT+1.
Gl Skovridergaard. glskov.dk/en
Restaurant Remouladen Vejle. restaurantremouladen.dk
Haute Friture. T: 00 45 32 14 00 95.
Silkeborg Museum. silkeborgmuseum.dk
DenGamle By. dengamleby.dk
ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum. en.aros.dk
How to do it
Wexas offers three days from £640 per person including flights with SAS via Copenhagen, car hire for three days and B&B accommodation. wexas.com
Published in the March 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)